Innovating Their Way To and From the Top

Spring 2017

By Gabriel Lucas

Sage on the stage. That is the pedagogical image so many of our schools have left in their rearview mirrors. Rare is the independent school that does not instead celebrate student-directed or project-based learning.

Yet it would be equally hard to find a school that does not continue to celebrate the talents of its faculty. Even alternative educational organizations — charter, online, and for-profit schools — all seek and tout engaged and motivated mentors, facilitators, or coaches, if not actual classroom teachers.

The reason for this apparent paradox is simple. As we dismantle our stages, unbolt the desks, and decentralize the learning, the value of the educator goes up, not down. In this new paradigm, teachers take more risks, experiment with new pedagogical techniques, and support a greater quantity and complexity of learning paths.

To enable and sustain such a culture of creativity and innovation, our schools unquestionably need key resources such as time, money, space, and talented faculty and staff. But what role does the school leader play in fostering this culture? Is a head’s contribution simply to free up time, raise more money, build new spaces, and hire the right people? Like the teacher who has stepped off the stage to run an entirely different classroom, it is not unreasonable to conclude that today’s heads of school require a different set of qualities and experiences to lead this innovation journey.

As a former director of technology, I can recall school leaders making predictions that caused more than momentary consternation:

• “All our teachers need the same digital whiteboard in their classrooms.”

• “All our courses could just run on Facebook.”

• “All our students should create an iPad app.”

Behind these statements was one commonality: none of these school leaders had ever done the very mandate they were proposing. In some cases, their dexterity with technology was beyond that of a novice, but more often their technology experience was that of a consumer, not a creator — let alone an innovator. A school leader with firsthand experience teaching with a digital whiteboard, delivering instruction through a learning management system, or writing code would have been far less likely to make these statements, which, spoken in an attempt to trigger innovation, actually stymied it.

But the benefit of heads of school with a background in innovation and technology goes beyond delivering a good motivational speech. At this juncture in the evolution of education, theirs is a path far less traveled. In other words, not only do they exude a genuine comfort with innovation, but their professional journey is itself an innovation combining technology prowess with school leadership. Their experiences help them authentically support not just the innovations at their schools but also the innovators themselves.

True, technology and innovation are not synonymous. In many ways, technology is but one piece of the innovation puzzle. And like the three heads’ comments above demonstrate, engaging with technology is not necessarily an act of innovation. But technology and innovation are related, so much so that it is not always clear which is powering the other. Technology is an engine that enables new ideas, but innovators often view technology as a prime modality for expressing their creativity.

Following are four school leaders whose careers are at the nexus of technology and innovation, enabling them to develop a community of creative thinkers, foster a mindset of risk- taking, and create a culture of innovation at their respective schools.

Elizabeth Davis

Liz Davis is the assistant head of school at Synapse School (California). She started as a public school teacher before briefly going to work on the corporate side of educational technology. She came back to education, first as a technology integrator for another public school, then as director of academic technology for six years at Belmont Hill School (Massachusetts). She got involved in the Web 2.0 revolution and dialed into professional development opportunities throughout the country, both as an attendee and presenter. From there, Davis moved into curriculum leadership, eventually becoming the assistant head of school at Synapse School.

D. DuBose Egleston, Jr.

DuBose Egleston is the head of school at Porter Gaud School (South Carolina). He rose up the ranks of Porter Gaud, starting out as the director of technology from 2000 to 2005. Initially, his primary area of focus was IT. However, because technology touches every department, he came to learn about all areas of school operations, from admissions to finance and academics. Later, he served as the school’s assistant head for finance and operations for four years, acting as the school’s CFO while still managing the technology department. He became head of school in 2009.

Jim Foley

Jim Foley is assistant head of school for leadership and innovation at St. Luke’s School (Connecticut). His career began in corporate finance and banking. However, with his mom, a former computer science teacher, to inspire him, Foley eventually found himself back in the classroom teaching math. Having witnessed the late 1990s desktop revolution in the corporate world, Foley was surprised to see technology still so far removed from education. After eight years of teaching, he earned a master’s degree in educational technology and became St. Luke’s first academic technology coordinator. In 2011, the school opened its Center for Leadership, the goal of which was to become a hub for curricular innovation. Foley took on this new program because his school viewed technology as a fundamental ingredient to leadership and innovation. In 2015, he was appointed assistant head.

Antonio Viva

Antonio Viva is head of school at Walnut Hill School for the Arts (Massachusetts). This is his 20th year working in education. He started as a theater and English teacher and, after demonstrating an early proclivity with technology in his classroom, became his school’s first technology teacher. Later, he went to work for the U.S. Department of Education, where he contributed to a school-reform research project focused on technology innovation. In 2001, he joined Worcester Academy (Massachusetts) as its first chief information officer. This role in a school was nearly unheard of at the time, but the school was looking for a visionary leader who could not only manage its data systems but also lead the professional growth of its faculty vis-à-vis educational technology. For the last six years, he has been head of school at Walnut Hill School for the Arts.

Cultivating Innovation

All four of these leaders talk about the need to cultivate innovation in their schools. “As a leader,” says Viva, “your job is to give people the permission to innovate and explore. You create an environment that is as conducive as possible for making mistakes and celebrating failure. Otherwise, innovation doesn’t happen, and you don’t get out of the box.”

Davis agrees and describes additional steps that she uses to cultivate an innovation mindset. First, she and the other members of her school’s leadership team model the behavior they promote. Too often, school leaders pay lip service to the need for innovation. “But then they’re not really supporting innovation,” she says. For her, this modeling comes in many shapes and sizes: running unconference-style EdCamps for faculty instead of traditional trainings, starting staff meetings with a three-minute quiet mindfulness experience, and fervently using in-person time for strategic-level conversations, not nuts-and-bolts talks. As she puts it, when it comes to creating a culture of innovation, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Foley connects his experience as an educator to his role as a leader of innovation. “As a teacher, I talk about culture all the time with students. We define culture as things that people believe, things that people do, unimpeachable virtues, and unforgivable sins.” He goes on to say, “Organizational culture is just as important. If leaders walk around trying to fill every minute with meetings or constantly emphasize the risks in anything new, then that culture is preventing innovation from sprouting up.” Foley talks about “providing a cultural ecosystem” for innovation at his school in which even seemingly small things can make a difference. “We provide time and space for nonstandard department collaboration, so that, for example, English and science faculties can develop cross-disciplinary projects.”

Egleston believes innovation comes best from a grassroots effort. “A leader shouldn’t force innovation to happen, but he or she can frame the issues and create the time and space for it.” To that end, a head of school should “set the culture, foster innovative ideas, have an open mind, and make it clear that the school is willing to take risks and experiment.”

Egleston observes that some school leaders have a long list of ideas they want to push forward, but “so much more comes out of just supporting faculty” in their quest to be innovative. Sometimes a head’s most important role is to check in and make sure faculty and staff have the resources they need. And sometimes heads just need to ask basic questions — such as, “Am I burdening you with paperwork and other duties?” —to help them understand if they are supporting or stifling a culture of innovation.

Creating Buy-In

Of course, creating a culture of innovation is a two-way street. On the one hand, a leader has to inspire a new mindset. But everyone else in the organization has to buy in to the vision and the process. For Davis, a huge part of the process is to establish “a culture of iteration.”

While Davis and her fellow administrators strive to make failure an acceptable cultural norm, it is equally important that the faculty and staff don’t view failure as the end point of a design process. “We have a whole building called our iteration building and another one called our innovation building.” These physical spaces symbolize the notion that, at Synapse, a relatively new school, “nothing remains constant and nothing works the first time. You expect a level of failure, but then you expect to work on something until it does work.” This determination to iterate has led Davis and other school leaders to value agility in their faculty.

Agility is relevant not just for faculty but also for administrators and even for budgeting and other processes. Viva, for instance, has developed a small innovation fund that he uses to seed innovative ideas. “If I have a talented member of the faculty looking to do something out of the box, and it would have a huge impact on the community,” he says, “then I want to be able to foster that.”

Viva goes on to say, “What I learned in my previous roles is that sometimes you need to just enable people. You don’t want to be tightly budgeted. You need elasticity.” Paradoxically, this kind of creative leadership doesn’t take huge dollars, but often it helps bring in bigger dollars. “You’d be surprised what even $5,000 could do. In the scope of our school budgets, it’s not hard to act like an incubator start-up. It’s given me a huge opportunity to talk to my faculty and staff, and there’s a direct connection with the work I do as the chief fundraising officer.”

Of course, innovation doesn’t automatically happen, even if there’s a pot of money sitting around. Sometimes a leader needs to think creatively about how to manage the innovation process. For Foley, this process includes many steps: “shining a light on problems that we’re trying to solve, working really hard to build relationships of trust, making every aspect of your thinking as transparent as possible,” and perhaps most important, “never letting a good crisis go to waste. He says, “If people are experiencing pain, that’s an opportunity to come together and solve a complex problem.”

Drawing on Their Technology Background

The four school leaders have often relied on their technology experience as they navigate the complex process of managing innovation. Egleston recalls his years as a technology director, in which he was first and foremost a problem solver for other department heads. Now as a head of school, he still carries this mindset. “There are some people who want to be head and shape the school with their vision. I’m much more inclined to facilitate shared goals and a common vision, which is exactly what a tech director does. You have to develop collaborative leadership principles, get buy-in, and generate community support. You can’t be dictatorial.”

For Viva, his background has helped him authentically drive initiatives outside of the teaching and learning program. “Twelve of us recently spent an entire day talking about marketing and admissions data. The meeting included our database manager. We talked in depth about data analytics, social media platforms, and online content.” For Viva the takeaway is clear: “Any head who thinks technology is separate from all that has missed the boat.”

With her strong technology background, Davis does what so many of her former technology peers do regularly in their roles: downplay technology whenever appropriate. “When we talk about innovation, we don’t even necessarily talk about technology. We are moving from the notion of a tech director to curriculum director.” Thus, at Synapse, there is no rush to jump on the tablet bandwagon or any other technology fad. “In some ways, we have less technology than I’ve had in other places,” and that is perfectly fine — because “delivering excellent instruction should be the number one priority.”

Foley sees educational technology as providing three critical leadership skills that transcend technology itself. As tech director, he first had to be comfortable living on the edge and exploring new boundaries. Second, any technology job in education “absolutely requires a good people person who can work with teachers, understand their mindsets, and learn about their pedagogy.” Finally, technology has a humbling effect; Foley says he has to acknowledge that he sometimes lacks the answers and that no one is ever the expert in everything.

Is the Path to the Top Changing?

So, will trailblazers like these forever be the exception to the rule? Or will more schools seek leaders with backgrounds in technology and innovation?

All four school leaders believe school leadership will increasingly require both a deep appreciation of educational technology principles and a capacity for leading innovation. For those who are interested in running schools of the future, Egleston offers this advice: “We’re getting to the point where the lack of a strong understanding of technology may limit the mobility of someone in a leadership role,” head of school or otherwise.

Viva concurs. “The nature of running an independent school in 2016 is far more complex and sophisticated than it was 30 years ago. It requires the ability to learn and adapt” to new systems — technology or otherwise. He adds, “More important are a leader’s qualities and skills around change, vision, and problem solving,” all of which are critical ingredients for a culture of innovation.

For Davis, the innovation qualities of a leader have to be authentic. “If technology innovation and design thinking are part of a vision, a head of school needs to know what design thinking is” and tell firsthand stories of the benefits of this methodology.

Foley agrees and points out that parents are now asking sophisticated questions that demand more than just a cursory answer. “They want to know not just whether you are a 1:1 school, but why, and how you leverage online assessment tools to support the program.” He adds that, at a more existential level, “if an AltSchool opens up in your backyard, and you’re incapable of evaluating whether it’s a threat, then your board should raise eyebrows.”

Now more than ever, our schools need leaders with firsthand experience as innovators and enablers of innovation. With these four educational technology leaders and others paving the way, the independent school community will soon have a solid bench of mentors to help others innovate their way to the top.

Gabriel Lucas

Gabriel Lucas is the cofounder of ATLIS, the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, and the principal of Ed Tech Recruiting, which helps schools design and implement innovation and technology strategies.